Let There Be Light at Southern California Edison’s Laguna-Bell Substation, 26 July 1923

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the electrifying story of greater Los Angeles’ staggering transformation during the Homestead’s interpretive period of 1830 to 1930, most attention is paid to the development of major industries (agriculture, oil, movies, real estate, manufacturing), the construction of significant structures and buildings (Los Angeles City Hall, the Coliseum, campus buildings at U.S.C. and U.C.L.A., towers of industry downtown, homes of the rich and famous), and the building of a transportation infrastructure (railroad and streetcar lines and stations, streets and highways, airports, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach) are more.

SCE pres statement St__John_Weekly_News_Jul_5__1923_
An interesting statement about the potential of hydroelectric power from the president of Southern California Edison in the St. John (Kansas) Weekly News, 5 July 1923.

What isn’t acknowledged as much is the infrastructure that had to be built to support the megalopolis that became greater Los Angeles by the end of the Roaring Twenties.  Actually, the building of the remarkable Los Angeles Aqueduct is accorded a great deal of attention in the discussion of the region’s development, almost certainly because it was an engineering marvel and because the semi-arid environment was transformed by the importation of water in obvious and visceral ways.

When it comes to other important elements, though, such as the development of gas lines  and associated components, and the construction of power lines, substations and other aspects for the delivery of electricity, these tend to be far less talked about.  Yet, important as water is, it is impossible to imagine the massive development of our region without the others.

SCE bond issue SA_Register_Jul_26__1923_
To prepare for anticipated development in the future, SCE proposed issuing huge amounts of stock and bond issues for projects, including the Big Creek which fed the lines for the Laguna-Bell station, Santa Ana Register, 26 July 1923.

Today’s highlighted artifacts from the museum’s collection are composed of four photographs, taken on this day in 1923, of the near completion of Southern California Edison’s massive Laguna-Bell substation, situated along Garfield Avenue in what became the City of Commerce.  The development of this impressive facility is primarily about the provision of electric power for a growing suburban industrial and commercial infrastructure outside the earlier core in downtown along the west bank of the Los Angeles River.

As that area was built out, the next logical location was to the southeast, on the east bank of the river and near its junction with the Rio Hondo, or old San Gabriel River channel.  To meet the demands for higher levels of power for industrial development, Southern California Edison built the Laguna-Bell substation so that it would provide plenty of horsepower.  Moreover, this would come from a huge (for the time) 220,000-volt transmission line from another marvel of the era, the Big Creek Project in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which used ample water supplies from snowmelt to generate hydroelectric power on a massive scale.

SCE Laguna Bell Station LA_Times_Jul_15__1923_
An ad in the 15 July 1923 edition of the Los Angeles Times trumpeting the near-completion of the Laguna-Bell station, which would aid in the development of the growing industrial region called the Central Manufacturing District, southeast of Los Angeles, where Vernon, City of Commerce and other cities are located.

The quartet of images include two views of the large transformers, the three-story concrete building, and one of the enormous generators inside the structure.  They are testimony to the sheer scale of the station and, undoubtedly, were viewed with pride by company officials and political and administrative officals in the area.

After all, they reflected the tremendous advances made in the generation of electrical power just a few decades after electricity became commonly available in our cities and towns.  An unflagging belief and faith in progress was in generally great abundance throughout the nation during these first few decades of the 20th century and nowhere was this more amply demonstrated than in greater Los Angeles.  With its peerless weather, fertile soil, abundant land, and surging population, the region added these remarkable water, gas and electrical projects to boost its infrastructure and pave the way to further growth.  At the time, the sky seemed the limit.

The scale of the Laguna-Bell station is reflected in the four photographs from the Homestead’s holdings shown here, including this view of the large field of transformers.

Within several years of the completion of the Laguna-Bell station, the relentless growth of the Roaring Twenties was given a sharp jolt of reality when the Great Depression hit in late 1929.  The rebound of the economy was driven largely by the massive military machine created during World War II, but, after a brief lull, another huge boom took place by the end of the 1940s and for years afterward as America ascended to preeminence on the world stage.  Notably, the City of Industry, which owns and funds the Homestead, came to being during the late 1950s when the postwar boom was at a peak.  Obviously, providing abundant electrical power to the many manufacturers and other businesses in the city was essential to its growth (discussed in a year-long series of posts here in the “Time Capsule Tuesday” series.)

By the 1970s, though, the march of development slowed considerably, including the shock of an energy crisis, mainly through reduced supplies of oil.  California’s energy grid, with its heavy reliance on hydroelectric power, seemed relatively stable, but periods of drought occasionally served to remind of the tenuousness of that system.

A slightly closer shot of the transformers.

Recent years with the effects of climate change more frequently in evidence have, along with the occasional manipulations of the energy market (Enron, anyone?), further highlighted the challenges.  All of this has been affected, as well, by the continued population growth and suburban sprawl and the obvious demands placed on the grid (while nuclear power has been curbed.)

As with transportation, water delivery, and other amenities to which we have grown accustomed to having in great quantity and abundance, reliable supplies of electricity are not as guaranteed as they once were.  During sweltering summers such as the one we’re experiencing now, the threat of outages because of demand straining available supply is far more common than it used to be.  Other questions of adequate maintenance of aging equipment and components, the move toward renewable sources of energy (wind and solar, in particular), and greater efficiencies with existing hydroelectric and other fuel sources enter the increasingly complex picture, too.

The substantial three-story structure housing the generator and other equipment was nearing completion.  Note the large piles of lumber and other material in the foreground.

At the Homestead, our interpretive period ending at 1930 allows us to cover the era of aggressive growth, technological improvements, and the attitude that progress seemed unlimited and the potential for expansion correspondingly limitless (or seemingly so.)  What we are increasingly looking to do, however, is take those concepts and compare and contrast them to what took place in our region’s history after that and up to the present.

The size of this generator is indicative of the scale of the station and reflects a tremendous transformation in the delivery of electricity in just a few decades since it became commonly available.

If knowing about our past does inform the present, that approach should have a great deal of merit.  What becomes the imperative from there is how we can apply the lessons of history (through, say, interpretations of these photographs in various contexts) to the adaptations necessary to confront future challenges.

This Google Maps link shows what the station, with its 95-year old structure, looks like today.

2 thoughts

  1. Examining the images and comparing them to traditional urban scenes, there is little to indicate the time period they were taken. The infrastructure and equipment hasn’t changed as dramatically as everything else. What else existing today looks almost identical after 90+ years?

    One thing that has changed however are the units of measurement. The newspapers discuss electricity in terms of ‘horsepower’, today ‘watts’ is the standard, or to move the decimal point and reduce the number of necessary zeros, kilowatts and megawatts.

    Paying for all this infrastructure is another issue. The billions of dollars in bonds and other sources of capital discussed were paid for through charges for the electricity used. In today’s switch to mostly solar, the end consumer becomes the generating station and the amount of power drawn from Edison is decreased, thereby decreasing the revenue available to the utility.

    Consumers still require a utility to supply electricity during hours of darkness so there is some revenue generated, but a major challenge today is paying for the infrastructure that we built up so long ago.

    The changes to how electricity is created and distributed has changed much in a hundred years, but not in ways that can be easily captured with a camera.

  2. Hi Jim, thanks for the comment and insights. There is no doubt that dealing with our infrastructure will pose significant challenges in upcoming years. It does seem that people generally love to build new things, but aren’t as keen on maintaining them!

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